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The ghosts of Eureka Springs

Having bailed out of our plans to visit the Redneck Riviera in this summer of the oil spill (perhaps we can call it the Year 2010 BP), we chose to shorten our family vacation and head north rather than south.

I’ve been in Eureka Springs for various conferences and seminars in recent years (I also went on an annual search for smallmouth bass in the Kings River for several consecutive summers), but this was the first time in six years that we had spent multiple nights there as a family.

Our destination was the Crescent Hotel & Spa, and it was nice to see that things were hopping atop the mountain.

There were large weddings and receptions on both Thursday night and Friday night. Meanwhile, at $18 apiece, tickets were selling briskly for the nightly ghost tours, which begin at 8 p.m.

“Some hotels, such as the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, are proud of their reputation for being haunted,” Gary Stoller wrote in USA Today back in March. “The Crescent advertises it in hopes of attracting the curious. Other hoteliers dismiss guests’ tales and would just as soon the notion that they’re harboring ghosts be exorcised for fear of scaring guests away.”

In a place as quirky as Eureka Springs, I’m glad the hotel has fully embraced its reputation for being haunted. There also are ghost tours at the Basin Park Hotel.

Stoller wrote: “At the Crescent, paranormal researchers Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, stars of the ‘Ghost Hunters’ show, say they caught on a thermal-imaging camera ‘the Holy Grail’ of paranormal investigation: ‘a full-body apparition’ wearing a hat and nodding. In 20 years of investigating paranormal activity at all locales, a full-body apparition has been captured on the camera only eight to 10 times, Hawes says.”

Bill Ott, the hotel’s director of marketing and communications, told the newspaper that the reports of ghosts have been good for business.

“The haunted reputation gives us awareness,” he said.

I’m not into the ghost fad, but the tour was fun in a kitschy sort of way. Why bother visiting this most eccentric Arkansas town if you’re not going to do something kitschy?

Glen Couvillion, who heads the team of Crescent ghost tour guides, moved to Eureka Springs from New Orleans.

“The response to the new Crescent Hotel ghost tour has been overwhelming,” according to the July issue of the Lovely County Visitor. “The guides will lead three to four tours a night to meet this increased demand. The multiple tours, open to hotel guests as well as visitors to Eureka Springs, allow the size of the tour to be effectively managed, offering a better, more enhanced experience for participants.”

“I have been exposed to the paranormal both in New Orleans and here in Eureka,” Couvillion said. “I have literally been touched by the unexplained and am quite excited to be giving ghost tours here in the Crescent, a very active, very famous resort hotel with many bizarre stories to tell.”

Interestingly, the same issue of the Lovely County Visitor features an ad for the business Eureka Springs Ghost Tours, making sure people realize that particular business is no longer associated with the hotel.

“We are no longer doing ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel and wish to thank the thousands of patrons who have participated in our tours for the past 11 years,” the ad states. “Watch our website for evocative information and future developments.”

What’s Eureka Springs without a squabble?

While not into the paranormal, I do consider myself a preservationist. Thus I was interested to learn that the Crescent is one of three Arkansas hotels included on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America list. The other two are the Inn at Carnall Hall on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Little Rock’s Capital Hotel.

In many ways, the 1886 Crescent Hotel remains a work in progress. On our first night, the door jammed and we couldn’t get out of the room (maybe a ghost did it). We called the front desk, and the bellman couldn’t get it open from the outside, either. While visions of firemen kicking in the door rattled around my brain, I finally forced it open. We asked to be moved to another room.

Showers throughout our stay led to wild dances as the water went from very hot to very cold. A couple with whom we visited at the pool complained that their room did not cool well (which was not a problem for us during that sultry final week of July).

I also had to avoid staff members who were smoking in public areas — on the back porch and by the pool.

But the hotel has its charms. The water in the pool is clean and cool. The grounds are beautiful with well-maintained flower gardens. The staff is friendly. The couple from Oklahoma City who complained about the hot room also raved about the massages they received at the hotel’s New Moon Spa. And the food was much better than I remember six years ago. Two breakfasts per morning come with each room, and the made-to-order omelets in the Crystal Dining Room left me satisfied. We went elsewhere for dinner on each of our three nights there (Rogue’s Manor the first night, DeVito’s the second night and Gaskin’s Cabin the third night), but lunches at Dr. Baker’s Extraordinary Bistro & Sky Bar on the fourth floor were good (especially the pizzas).

To truly appreciate the hotel, you must consider how far it has come since it was purchased by Marty and Elise Roenigk on May 5, 1997, just two months after they had purchased the Basin Park.

Jack Moyer, the hotel’s general manager, told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal in a story published last week that the aging resort was in “dangerous disrepair” at the time. He said a bellman named Boyd Pyle developed a routine to attract guests.

“He would walk them room to room, literally, until they found one they were willing to stay in,” Moyer said. “That was how this hotel stayed afloat.”

The Roenigks moved into a penthouse on the top floor and began pouring millions of dollars into renovations.

Richard Davies, who heads the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, told the business publication: “I think the Crescent is a symbol of the resurgence of tourism in Eureka, a sign that people were willing to come in and make an investment — and hang in there — when times were no so great.”

As I said, the Crescent remains a work in progress. Don’t go expecting the Four Seasons. But Moyer told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal that Marty Roenigk was “totally oppposed to taking a historic shell and putting a new building inside it. He wanted to freeze a period in history.”

Marty Roenigk was killed in June of last year in an automobile accident in Iowa. Elise Roenigk continues to own the Crescent and the 1905 Basin Park.

While many of his dreams were achieved, much remains to be done. In 2006, the Roenigks announced plans for an $11 million condominium project in the woods adjacent to the hotel. The Crescent Park project was to consist of 38 condos in 19 buildings covering 11 acres. David McKee of Fayetteville, who studied under Fay Jones, was hired as the architect.

“It’s very much in the spirit of Fay Jones and started before Fay Jones passed away,” Moyer said at the time. “He makes a point that you build and develop with quality. That’s part of the sizzle here.”

With the real estate market booming in 2006, it was said that condos ranging from 975 square feet to 1,325 square feet would go for $300,000 to $350,000. Moyer told Arkansas Business in October 2006 that he expected to have most of the condos under contract within six months to a year from the opening of a sales office on Nov. 1, 2006.

The first two buildings, which are nestled in the woods at the back of the hotel parking lot, were built in 2007. Incorporating wood, stone and glass exteriors with multiple balconies, they blend in nicely with the surrounding landscape and can be rented as two-bedroom cottages with rates beginning at $399 a night.

“It will be an intrinsic part of the hotel forever,” Marty Roenigk said in 2006. “It will be a very mixed thing, a hotel suite and a second home. The owner can utilize the condo on weekends or on vacations. Then he has the opportunity to put it back into the hotel rental pool when not using it. The hotel and the owner will split the rent 50-50 so the owner has an income from the property to help meet the mortgage or pay the taxes or whatever.”

As we said earlier, though, it’s just not Eureka Springs without a squabble. The Roenigks wrangled for months with the City Council, the Historic District Commission, the Board of Zoning Adjustment and the Planning Commission. In a compromise announced in March 2007, they eliminated most of the planned roads through the development, established a permanent green space easement next to streets and moved several of the proposed structures. The proposed tree cut was reduced from 27 percent to 18 percent.

“We wanted to do it right,” Marty Roenigk said at the time. “We did everything asked of us. One thing people lose sight of is that this property is zoned for development. If someone else came in and bought this, they could build many more buildings than we are. … We’ve done everything we feel we’re supposed to do. We would prefer not to go to court. The people who oppose it because they think it should remain a vacant lot, I respect their opinion, but it’s impractical.”

The first two buildings were constructed.

Then the bottom fell out of the real estate market.

Then the Great Recession took hold.

Then Marty was killed.

No additional construction has taken place.

But the Crescent Hotel plugs on, ghosts and all.

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